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The Learning Channel Under Fire

By James Beck
Posted on: 4/18/2002

Even a TV channel allegedly devoted to education can't seem to offer much but credulity when it comes to spiritualism.

Despite my misgivings regarding the subject, I decided to watch The Learning Channel’s Unnatural History episode on “Prophecies and Ghostly Voices” on Monday, August 10, 1998. Although I was surprised yet pleased to see James Randi and Michael Shermer on the program, I was still largely disappointed.

The first half of the program was devoted to prophecies. Of course, Nostradamus was given a significant portion of the time in this segment. Despite the fact that Randi has clearly shown the widely interpretable nature of Nostradamus’ “prophecies,” as well as pointing out contradictions in the verses, the conclusion reached by the writers of the show was that some of the prophecies were accurate. None of the examples given during the show described any sort of controls, and most were anecdotal. Also conspicuously absent was any mention of the modern tests conducted on self-proclaimed psychics and seers, all with negative results.

The second half of the show gave a brief history of the spiritualist movement, accurately starting with the Fox sisters in the mid-1800’s. It even mentioned one of the sisters’ confession that she, along with her sister, had been faking it all along by cracking the joints in her toes and using a variety of props to make sound effects. For a second there I thought that a sliver of doubt had crept into the minds of the obviously credulous writers of this show. However, just as the masses of “believers” refused to believe the Fox confession, Unnatural History also brushed it aside and even suggested that the mediums caught faking had “real” abilities, but were driven to cheat to produce consistent results.

I realize that sensationalizing alleged supernatural occurrences wins important ratings, and I even hoped that the commercials I had seen were produced with a distinctive tabloid feel to lure some of the people that James Randi aptly describes as “believers to be given a sobering look at reality.” Instead, TLC chose to follow the same well-trodden path which presents these hoaxes as facts and then presents science as unable to prove that these claims are not authentic. The burden of proof does not lie with science. I could easily assert that ten invisible leprechauns are dancing on my desk, and it would be impossible to disprove. There has not been one well-documented, adequately controlled demonstration of either prophetic or spiritual ability. All adequately controlled tests of these abilities have produced negative results.

Perhaps most troubling of all was the “G” rating I noticed at the opening of the program. Unsupervised children watching this show were not only exposed to tales of the paranormal presented as common everyday events, but also instructed to view science in an extremely dubious light. I can’t help but wonder what the response would be to one of these shows presented with even a slightly skeptical point of view.

TLC had only this to say:
Date: Friday, August 14, 1998 6:02:28 PM
Subj: Re: "Real" History

Thank you for contacting us. We appreciate your comments
about our Unnatural History series. We will forward your
comments to our home office. If you have further
comments or suggestions, feel free to call us at
888-404-5969, Monday - Friday, 8 AM - 6 PM EST.

Viewer Relations
To contact TLC about “TV Questions,” email to

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